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During the break of a double feature at Santa Monica’s Aero Theatre featuring screenings of Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia and Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, respective screenwriters Ron Nyswaner and Diana Ossana sat down for a Q&A (moderated by The Wrap critic Alonso Duralde) that included a gossip session about casting.
Oscar-winning scribe Ossana dished about the difficult eight-year process of getting her film made and how, during that time, she witnessed a long line of “prominent young actors” hop on and hop off the project, known around town as a “gay cowboy” movie. “Nobody would commit,” Ossana said of the film, which at one time looked like it was close to going forward with director Gus Van Sant and stars Matt Damon and Joaquin Phoenix. (Mark Wahlberg was also considered at one point.) “We sent it to Edward Norton [to direct] and Joel Schumacher and dozens of people and they all came back saying they loved it but no one would commit. They didn’t give us any real excuse why they wouldn’t. I guess they saw it as too difficult.”
One of the biggest challenges for filmmakers was getting executives to understand that this was not a “universal love story,” as many tried to position it. “This is a movie about two men who fall in love. It’s very specific,” she said. “It’s about Ennis and Jack and it’s about their flaws and their mistakes and their struggles and their humanity.”
Though Ossana didn’t drop anymore names, she did reveal how badly she wanted Heath Ledger for the Ennis role, even if the studio — Focus Features — had other ideas. “Nobody wanted Heath but me and [co-writer] Larry [McMurtry]. The studio felt he wasn’t macho enough.”
But when “another actor” dropped out after being on board for nearly six months, Ossana ran back to Ledger’s representatives. He eventually signed on — with a little nudge from his then-girlfriend Naomi Watts. “Heath read it on the way home to Australia … and he said Naomi read it and she was jumping up and down on the bed telling him you’ve got to do this role for all kinds of reasons — for your career and for the world. He told me on the set, you know, it’s the most beautiful script I’ve ever read in my life, and I would’ve rowed a boat halfway around the world to meet with Ang to be in this movie. It was a battle to get him, but boy was it worth it.”
Watts and Ledger would eventually split when the actor fell in love and had a daughter with Brokeback co-star Michelle Williams.
Romance aside, Ossana teased, “Maybe I’ll write a book about it someday, about who committed and backed out.”
As for Nyswaner, he revealed that the role of Andy in Philadelphia that won Tom Hanks an Oscar nearly went to another Oscar favorite. “We wanted Daniel Day-Lewis and Daniel passed,” said the Oscar-nominated writer who, more recently, has been a part of the critically acclaimed writing staff on Homeland. “I love him and he’s a genius, but I’m so glad he passed.”
A version of this story first appeared in the April 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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